Armenia

Armenia

By
Tess Mallos
Contains
28 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742704920
Photographer
Alan Benson

Proclaimed a Soviet Republic in 1920, Armenia regained its nationhood in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the years of oppression, the nationalistic spirit lived on, both in the people of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and in those who, through the events of history, found a home elsewhere. They have shown that while adversity altered their fate, it has never altered their spirit. It is to their credit that, in spite of insurmountable odds, they have preserved their language, religion, customs and traditions.

To really understand the evolution of a cuisine, one must know something of a country’s history. I doubt if there ever has been a country that has undergone such upheavals as Armenia, and about which the world knows so little. Perhaps knowing something of Armenia’s history will shed light on many aspects of Middle Eastern cooking. Tradition has it that the kingdom of Armenia was founded by Haig, a descendant of Noah, in the Near East region of Lake Van. For centuries it was ruled by Haig’s successors. There followed invasions by Assyrians, Medes and Persians; it was conquered by Alexander the Great and passed on to the ancient Syrian King, Seleucus I. Independence was finally declared in 189 BC. This was short-lived, however, and Armenia was eventually made a protectorate of Rome. Nero confirmed a Parthian prince as King of Armenia in 66 AD. Christianity was introduced in the first century, and Armenia now has the distinction of being the oldest Christian state. Peace reigned for the next 300 years or so and then a succession of invasions followed for the next 1500 years, with brief periods of independence.

While Byzantium was at its zenith, Armenian Orthodox church leaders and many Armenians were centred in Constantinople, as were numbers of Greeks, and it was during this era, the pre-Ottoman era, that the exotic cuisine of Byzantium was developed, influencing Armenian and Greek and eventually Turkish cooking. It must also be noted that the Armenian boundaries through history have expanded and contracted considerably, accounting for so many similarities to Turkish dishes.

Mongol hordes swept across India, Afghanistan, Persia and Armenia into Russia in the 13th century, and though their mission was not one of goodwill, it is believed that they introduced pasta and noodles, almost a hundred years before Marco Polo’s return from China. An Armenian noodle-type dish called mante also features in Russian cooking in a slightly varied form; it is a speciality of Uzbrek on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, and both areas were once under Mongol influence. In Turkish cooking, mante is known as Tartar boregi (the Mongols, in their surge, were joined by other peoples and became known collectively as Tartars). It is only through similar clues that one might hope to piece together the jigsaw of culinary origins.

The flavour of Armenian food

True Armenian cooking is relatively simple fare, often of a kind necessary in a cold climate. It is subtly herbed and spiced with overtones of the colourful era of Byzantium. The combination of rice, currants, onions and pine nuts is a legacy from that era — a legacy that in fact belongs to those of the Orthodox faith, be it Armenian, Greek or Eastern. Fasting is a very important requirement of the religion, and the ingenuity of the Armenians in preparing dishes without any animal products is evident in recipes. Many such recipes in other chapters are also used in Armenian cooking.

To illustrate their staunch upholding of tradition, the founder of Armenia is immortalised in the recipes haigagan parak hatz and haigagan keteh. The former is a bread similar to the flat breads of Persia and Lebanon, cooked a little longer so that it dries out. Try the khoubiz recipe, but cook it straight after it is shaped, sprinkling the breads with sesame seeds. Bake for 6–7 minutes, long enough to dry it. This keeps well and is served as a dry bread or moistened with water. Haigagan keteh is the same as glor keteh, with the circle folded in on itself, then pressed flat rather than rolled into a rope and coiled.

Another recipe worthy of mention is topig, one dating back to the days of Byzantium. His Grace, the Armenian Bishop of the Diocese of Sydney, is not only renowned among Sydney’s Armenian community as a cook of great standing, he is also remembered for his culinary achievements in Los Angeles and Washington. His topig and his oologantch litzk are the envy of every Armenian cook in these three cities. The topig recipe I have given does not quite follow His Grace’s in that I refuse to soak the chickpeas for the length of time he recommends. Investigation and testing found that I did not need to cook the topig for quite as long he recommends either. My taste testers, members of his congregation, assured me that it was a very good topig, not quite as good as His Grace’s, but near enough, and just like their mothers used to make. Perhaps I should give you details of the famous topig so that you might judge for yourself.

Apparently the secret is to soak the chickpeas for three days, changing the water daily and letting them ferment, as he claims this is necessary for the success of the dish. By then the peas are much easier to skin. His method is to wrap the peas in a cloth and rub vigorously. The skins come off easily. Put the peas in a bowl of water and skim off the floating skins. Grind the drained peas in a food grinder, or process in a food processor using a steel blade. The onions should be boiled in a generous amount of water and drained, reserving the water. Regarding the filling, we both agree on that point, so mix the onions with the remaining ingredients listed. Now, to prevent the water penetrating the cloth used for boiling, it should be soaked in the reserved onion water, and wrung out well. Spread out one-quarter of the ground pea mixture (mixed with mashed potato) on the cloth in a very thin square — as thin as you can make it. Fill as described, then fold the corners over, sealing the joins. Knot the cloth and prepare the remaining topigs in the same way. Boil them in salted water for 1 hour. Drain and leave them in the cloths until completely cold before removing. Now you know.

The oologantch litzk recipe is also His Grace’s, minus three onions.

An Armenian meal

Rather than describe Armenian meals as served today in the Republic of Armenia, it is preferable to describe the usual way in which Armenians, wherever they may live, may take a meal following tradition. Meals are served in the Western manner; that is, with Western table appointments. All the prepared dishes for the meal are placed on the table at the one time so that the diners may take what they wish. In cooler weather the meal could begin with a bowl of soup, probably spiced with mint and thickened with yoghurt. Then follows a meat, chicken or fish dish, and vegetable, rice or pasta accompaniment, salad, bread and pickles. Tan (yoghurt drink) accompanies every meal served in the Armenian tradition. When fasting, the meal could feature fish or one of their delicious dishes made from dried beans, peas or burghul (bulgur). The full range of foods, from meats to desserts, could be Armenian, but they are just as likely to be from any of the Arabic countries, Greece or Iran — in fact from countries where they or their parents sought a new home.

Cooking methods

Armenians, particularly in the United States, are renowned for their success in the food industry. They operate speciality food stores, delicatessens, restaurants and bakeries, and while Armenian foods feature in their commercial endeavours, their affinity with food extends to preparing dishes from any nation. Perhaps it is an inherited gift; to be able to adapt to a situation is either born with us or thrust upon us. It has been thrust upon the Armenians for generations and it has held them in good stead. In other words, it is difficult to say that the Armenian uses this pot or that method of cooking, for it could be anything you might be using yourself.

An Armenian kitchen would be well stocked and well equipped with all the items necessary for producing good, wholesome food. You would not find cupboards filled with tins, or freezers filled with TV dinners, but you would be likely to find pantry shelves lined with jars of pickles and preserves, with perhaps a basderma hanging. I tested the latter recipe but I am afraid that I cannot advise you to prepare this pungent, spiced meat at home, as it requires days of hanging in the open air to dry it. I would prefer you to patronise your local Armenian or Greek food store and buy it ready prepared, as its commercial preparation is carried out under controlled conditions. Basderma is similar to the Romanian pastrami, except that a large quantity of fenugreek is included in the garlic and spice coating.

Ingredients for Armenian cooking

There is hardly an ingredient in Armenian cooking with which the Western cook would not be familiar. Harissa is made in Armenia with a special wheat unavailable outside the Near and Middle East. Pearl barley is a more than reasonable substitute; consequently, in this recipe barley has been given as the ingredient.

Chickpeas are usually preferred without the skin. These are available at Armenian and Greek food stores but are difficult to find elsewhere.

Sumac is a coarse powder with a sour flavour, prepared from the dry red berries of a species of the sumac tree. It is also used in Iran and other countries of the region.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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